BLADE RUNNER 2049: Sentience, Self and SciFi

Spoilers for BLADE RUNNER 2049 follow.

The original BLADE RUNNER always left me cold. Except for the Roy Batty speech at the end, Ridley Scott’s influential flop has the temperature and the sheen of an intricately wrought steel blade; I can appreciate the craftsmanship and the edge, but I can’t hold it close. I never connected with the film on an emotional level, and I definitely never connected with Rick Deckard, a character whose cool remove removed him from my ability to care. I appreciate the film – design-wise it’s a masterpiece, and cinematographically it’s stunning – but I’ve never loved it. Hell, I’ve never LIKED it, and I’ve seen it a whole bunch of times (on screens small and big, and I’ve also watched every cut). It’s the film I like the least that I’ve tried the most.

The humanity missing from BLADE RUNNER – a movie that asks what makes us human – is present and beating and bleeding in BLADE RUNNER 2049. A remarkable follow-up that feels fully respectful while also forging new ground, BR2049 is a personal science fiction epic that foregrounds the moral and philosophical questions that BLADE RUNNER obfuscated behind its design and posing. By reversing the question BLADE RUNNER left us with – is our Blade Runner a replicant becomes is our Blade Runner a human – BR2049 blows open the stifling stuffiness of the future and brings the dilemma home.

Here’s the philosophical thing: we almost never doubt that we’re human. But sometimes, in our darkest moments, we doubt the humanity of those around us. We doubt their reality. It’s rare that a person with a psychotic break believes they themselves are not real, but it is fairly common that people with psychotic breaks believe others around them are not real, or not what they present themselves to be. So Deckard grappling with his own humanity never carried weight for me, and the idea that he loved a woman who may or may not have a soul never hit home. Roy Batty’s dilemma, though, sang to me. Here is a sentient being with hopes and dreams and love and experience who is told that they don’t count. What’s more, he’s experiencing an existential terror all too familiar – as a being without a soul, when he dies all his experiences and emotions will cease to be. Any atheist must understand that particular fear of death, the fear not of a bad afterlife but NO afterlife, the sudden extinguishing of you that renders all your internal moments moot.

But Batty was the bad guy (albeit one with whom we sympathized) and he got less screen time. Enter Detective K, a Blade Runner in 2049 who knows he is a replicant. He is reminded of it constantly – by other replicants who disdain him, by humans who despise him, by commanding officers who demean him – but the fact that he is “artificial” doesn’t remove his humanity. He doesn’t feel physical pain the way humans do, but it’s clear that he feels emotional pain just as acutely. He is lonely.

In a reversal of BLADE RUNNER’s romance, K is in love with an AI hologram. While Deckard grappled with Rachael’s soul (or lack thereof), K doesn’t care. His love of Joi is pure, and it’s reciprocated. BR2049 never questions this – it gives us a momentary view from outside the relationship so that we can see being in love with an AI is still considered odd, even in 2049, but the film makes sure we understand that the feelings between these two beings are as real as any feelings you have ever had for anyone else.

That’s the heart of BR2049. The replicants are no longer angry adolescents, coming to terms with their emotions and rebelling against their masters – they’re beaten down adults in their 30s, just trying to make the best of the deck they’ve been dealt. They find comfort where it is offered, separated from any hope of freedom or exceptionalism. That is until K discovers that he might be the miraculous offspring of a replicant (and a human? BLADE RUNNER 2049 wisely avoids re-engaging the question of Deckard’s humanity), and all of a sudden the pain and emptiness he feels makes perfect sense.

Structurally I found this frustrating. I felt about five steps ahead of K for the first hour of the movie, and I didn’t understand why we had to crawl through the process of him discovering his heritage when it was so blazingly obvious. Duh, K! You’re a detective, you can put these pieces together with or without lengthy microfiche machine scenes.

Which made the film’s double twist all the more satisfying. K ISN’T the chosen one, and our assumptions (perhaps sexist assumptions?) get undercut in a most satisfying way. But then the twist re-opens the can of worms that the ‘miracle’ seemed to close – if K IS a replicant, just a regular replicant with implanted memories, what is the functional spiritual difference between a replicant and a human if a replicant is capable of all the emotions that we associate with humanity?

Buddhism gives one answer: there is no difference. It turns out that BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a pretty good examination of the fundamental Buddhist concept of anatta, aka no self. It’s one of the trickier core Buddhist teachings to grasp, but I think the replicants in this film make it much easier.

(Side note: BLADE RUNNER 2049 is probably not a Buddhist film textually. It IS a Christian film textually. The disease that ‘kills’ Deckard’s daughter? It’s Galatians Disease. Paul’s Epistle to Galatians is a foundational text in the evolution of Christianity. In that letter, Paul totally discounts Mosaic law, making Christianity a distinct faith from Judaism. That said, in the letter Paul famously says this: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”, which is thematically appropriate to BR2049’s questions of the divide between human and replicant.)

OK, back to Buddhism: anatta is the teaching that there is no soul, no solid state essence that exists within you and is separate from your physical experience. The Buddha taught that NOTHING has an essence, that we are always projecting our understanding of an essence onto things. You can see how that applies to replicants, which seem perfectly human. There is nothing physically obvious about K marking him as a replicant, yet his neighbors know he’s a ‘skinjob’ and so they treat him accordingly. That’s despite the fact that no stranger walking past him on the street would see him for what he is.

So if there is no essence, no soul, what is there? The Buddha teaches that there are five aggregates that work together to make the thing we conceive of as the ‘self.’ Let’s put it this way: is there sailing? I mean, sailing is something you can do, but is there a separate thing that IS sailing? To be sailing you need other stuff to come together and interact – a boat, water, wind, a crew (a boat without a crew is drifting, not sailing) – and so it is with the self. Just as there is no sailing without those components, there is no self without the aggregates.

Those aggregates are things that humans, replicants and even AI possess:

Form. Even Joi is tethered to a physical projector.

Sensation. This is the sensory input, not just the actual sense of touch. Any sensory input – sight, sound, taste, smell, touch – is sensation.

Perception. This is the ability to understand the distinguishing features of what you have experienced through sensation. It’s the mental process that labels things you experience, including emotion.

Mental Formations. This is any mental conditioning. Conditioning is a big deal in Buddhism, which holds as a fundamental truth that nothing arises from nothing, that all things that exist are the result of conditions being exerted on things. It’s basically the way that you react to things based on your thoughts and past experiences. Joi has this, because she is not starting from scratch every time K turns her on. Memory is only one aspect of Mental Formations, though.

Consciousness. This is awareness, and it’s still the great mystery of our minds. We know we have it (personally. Nobody can be truly sure anyone else has it), but that’s about it.

The idea is that what you define as ‘self’ is actually the result of these five things bouncing around together inside your mind. Using this definition there’s absolutely no question (to me) that a replicant has as much spiritual reality as a human – both are sentient beings. Further, I think that the AI in BR2049 also meets these criteria, making Joi just as much a being as any human born of flesh.

In Buddhism there’s a lot of talk about being kind and compassionate to all sentient beings. The teachings don’t start and stop with humans – the Buddha understood that all things with sentience could experience suffering, just as K does. Just as Joi does. 2500 years ago he was creating a moral handbook that would take artificial intelligence comfortably into account. By removing any mystical aspects from the question, Buddha handily answered all the moral questions ever raised by a BLADE RUNNER movie.

This all gets boiled down to one joke in BR2049. K sees Deckard’s dog and, knowing real animals are rare, asks if the dog is real. “Ask him,” Deckard replies, and that’s the only true answer. The dog, whether grown in a lab or born of flesh, likely has the five aggregates listed above, and as such is a sentient being with some sense of self. Perhaps it’s my own journey into vegetarianism speaking here, but I read a lot of BR2049’s replicant talk as being subtly about animal rights (which I guess makes K the cartoon animal mascot who sells you the flesh of his brethren. There used to be a huge mural in Queens, right off the Grand Central, I think, which featured an anthropomorphic fish holding the corpses of other fish out towards you, enticing you to visit a fishmonger. It’s like Mister Peanut – how can you trust this guy?). Wallace dreams of making millions of replicants, upon whose backs we can conquer the stars, and that made me think of the millions of animals bred into horrifying captivity in factory farms across the country.

All of this is to say that the thematics of BR2049 are elegant and complex, and what seemed at first like a bum narrative lead – K is the Chosen One! – adds depth and meaning to it all. But how is it as a story?

BR2049 is, to be frank, overlong. The film takes its time, and that’s often refreshing in an age of big budget blockbusters with spasmodic editing and no attention span. Let’s just put this matter to rest: Denis Villeneuve is the best director working today at this scale, and he’s the best genre filmmaker since Spielberg, if his approach to genre is different. What’s interesting is that he has the visual specificity and clarity of a Ridley Scott (BR2049 echoes the original visually while never feeling like a cheap, JJ Abrams-style ‘homage’) welded to the humanity of Spielberg. There’s a Kubrickian precision to what Villeneuve does, but none of that Kubrickian distance. To be honest, I’d like to see HIS version of AI.

But Villeneuve is taking his time on purpose. He’s creating an expansive, languid world. He’s not really telling a ticking clock story until the third act, and he’s happy to let the universe play itself out around you. This is immersive filmmaking, aided by the astonishing and painterly work of Roger Deakins (the scene with Deckard and Wallace sitting in the pool room is some of the most gorgeous cinematography I have ever seen, and I love how subtle emotional cues are being given in the way the light fades and intensifies on their faces. Absolute top level masterwork stuff). Villeneuve does what Scott did, and Polanski did in CHINATOWN – he takes a pulp concept and he sort of stretches it out so that it gets a bit more of a prestige air. BR2049 is a 95 minute movie stretched to over two hours to give it an elegance that transcends its noir/scifi roots.

I do need to revisit the film, as the twist recontextualized everything for me; I spent the first hour growing impatient with K’s slow discovery process, and I’m curious how that all plays when knowing the truth. BR2049 feels slightly more formless than BLADE RUNNER, having lost the episodic nature of Deckard hunting down the replicant squad. There were moments in BR2049 where I wasn’t even sure what the plot WAS; until Wallace sent Luv to collect Rachael’s bones it seemed like the movie might just be about K lying to Madam. But the slow build up of the story gives Villeneuve – working from a script by original BLADE RUNNER writer Hampton Fancher and TV guy Michael Green – the space to get into the corners, and to foreground his thematic interests. If Scott’s BLADE RUNNER gave running time over to design, Villeneuve’s BR2049 gives running time over to philosophical musings.

Ryan Gosling is extraordinary as K; often I’ve found Gosling’s glum, sub-Brando stuff to be a bore, but he’s now aged into it, and it fits K’s often beaten visage. There’s a complexity to K’s pain that Gosling gets across in the quietest moments; it’s a truly internal performance that happens to be broadcast on a movie star frequency. Gosling almost never gets big – the one time he truly does it might be a tad silly – but that doesn’t hold him back from being expressive.

Harrison Ford…. well, he’s Harrison Ford. To be fair, Deckard doesn’t get a lot to do in this film, and I’m not entirely sure why he’s even in it. Perhaps understanding what Wallace wants with him will become clearer on the second viewing (wasn’t the premise that Deckard had NO information about the location of his daughter, and as such could be of no use to Wallace at all?), but I still feel like this whole movie could happen without him. In fact, this whole movie might be better if it was Rachael who was still alive, and Deckard who ended up in a suitcase.

There’s a whole lengthy book to be written about Ford’s late-period revisiting of his classic characters; he’s a dad to Generation X, and each version of these classic characters is telling us something else about our relationships with our fathers, with our selves and with our aging and mortality. Sadly, I think most of the things they tell us are sappy – every Dad version of Harrison Ford boils down to “grumpy guy who wasn’t there but who really, really wants to reconnect towards the end of his life,” a fantasy for a generation raised during an epidemic of divorce. Gen X was the first non-wartime generation raised without father figures (see FIGHT CLUB for more on this), and it turns out all we want is to learn our absentee dads were pretty good guys all along, and that they left for our own good.

It feels weird to admit this, but Jared Leto is fine as Wallace. His performance brushes up against kabuki at times, but Wallace seems entirely like the kind of full-of-shit dude who would get there on purpose. I can’t tell if this was envisioned as the start of a new franchise, but the utter lack of resolution on Wallace certainly indicates that’s the case. Or perhaps that’s just one more sign of a thing I liked about BR2049 – it’s technically a small story, a story that happens at the margins of bigger things, and K is a small part of the small story.

But the true breakout of BR2049 is Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, Wallace’s ass-kicking replicant assistant. With her awesome bangs and her badass attitude, Luv is a winner from frame one. Watching her get holographic nail work done only solidified how much I loved this character, who feels perhaps the most like a replicant from BLADE RUNNER, but with some added 21st century empowerment.

There’s another whole essay to be written about Luv kissing K, echoing the kiss of life/death that Wallace bestows on that replicant he kills when she is born (I like that Luv and K battle in the sea, the place from which all life crawled, whose salty waters are replicated inside the womb), and I think you could get a whole book out of the cold, cruel beauty of Hoeks. At the very least you could get a whole book out of her amazing outfits in every scene. Hell, you could probably get an anthology of essays about her being the opposite counterpart of Carla Juri’s Dr. Stelline (having first seen Juri in the very filthy WETLANDS, I found her appearance in this role as delightfully complicated), the daughter who tries to be like her progenitor but who also hates him, as opposed to Stelli’s lack of knowledge of her parents and yet her nostalgic love for them.

That BLADE RUNNER 2049 is any good is a miracle. That it’s THIS good is almost holy, and it enshrines Villeneuve – whose ARRIVAL is already one of the best science fiction movies ever made – as one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, and one of the leading luminaries in REAL scifi. Rather than make a hollow recreation of the original, Villeneuve simply plays his own song using Ridley Scott’s chords… and if you ask me, this composition is far superior.